If doctors in the US on visas die while fighting the coronavirus, their families could be forced to leave the country or face deportation

  • Physicians from other countries have helped fill the gap in the US healthcare workforce for years, even before the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Now, as healthcare workers are becoming sick with the coronavirus and some are dying from the disease, an already complicated visa process for physicians from other countries is becoming an even bigger issue.
  • Some doctors are juggling visa renewals amid fighting the pandemic. Others are worried about what might happen to their families if they – the primary visa holders – get sick and die.
  • Dr. Amit Vashist, a Tennessee-based physician who used to be on a visa before he attained his current residency status, told Business Insider that he believes steps have to be taken so that healthcare workers don’t have to worry about visa issues as they fight the virus.
  • Read live updates about the coronavirus here

The US relies heavily on doctors from other countries. More than a quarter of all physicians in the country are foreign-born, and in some parts of the country, the number is even higher.

The need for ventilators and personal protective equipment has been front and centre in the news in the past few weeks. But less attention has been paid to the need for healthcare workers who can care for patients.

Already, healthcare workers have been flying into coronavirus hotspots like New York and New Jersey to help fight the pandemic. New York Governor Cuomo has made repeated pleas to retired healthcare workers, medical students, and healthcare workers from other states to join the fight.

‘We need relief’

“As governor of New York, I am asking health care professionals across the country: If you don’t have a health care crisis in your community, please come help us in New York now,” Cuomo said at a briefing of the crisis in late March. “We need relief.”

But some foreign physicians who are on the ground and want to help are finding their hands are tied.

Many foreign physicians are either on the J-1 or H-1B visas. Though there are differences between the two, physicians on either are facing challenges because they’re often tied to one hospital and can’t work at other locations.

There have been efforts made by the US Department of State to address concerns for these healthcare workers, Frank Trinity, the chief legal officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), told Business Insider.

These actions include allowing flexibility for some physicians to work in hospitals other than the one designated as their main employer. This could help fill in gaps in areas hit hardest by the coronavirus. They have also agreed to resume processing visa applications for recent medical graduates who are set to start their residency programs this summer, which would help fill in gaps in the US healthcare workforce, after a pause due to concerns over the coronavirus.

But more has to be figured out, according to medical organisations.

Some doctors are juggling visa complications while fighting the coronavirus

2,358 international medical graduates (IMG) saw their J-1 visas expire in 2019, according to data from the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG), the non-profit organisation that verifies the credentials of physicians who have gone to medical schools outside the US and Canada. More than 2,000 foreign physicians have had their visas expire every year since at least 2015.

If the same number of doctors leave around this summer without a new batch to replace them, the country would be short of even more healthcare workers amid the pandemic.

ECFMG CEO William W. Pinsky told Business Insider that his organisation is trying to figure out how they can get a new batch of 4,222 doctors here for the start of their programs this summer, now that their visas seem to be on track for processing.

“Right now, with airlines not doing really any international flights, we’re talking to various airlines and airline associations to see what the possibility is in terms of their travel to organise something for them,” Pinksy said. “That’s the next hurdle.”

Another issue that needs to be addressed, according to Trinity, is the doctors currently here have visas whose deadlines to renew are rapidly approaching.

“We think the State Department should consider an automated extension of these deadlines so that the immigration system does not have to be stressed to manage the approval,” said Trinity. “Just extend everyone automatically for some period to get us through the pandemic.”

If some doctors on visas die while fighting the coronavirus, their families may have to leave the US

Foreign physicians are perhaps even more acutely aware of their precarious situations as visa holders in the US as they see more healthcare workers getting sick and dying from the coronavirus.

Some doctors are concerned about what might happen to their families if they get sick and die. As the primary visa holder, if a foreign physician in the US dies while fighting the virus, their families – who are dependent on them for status – could be forced to leave or face deportation.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services does note some room for visa dependents to petition to keep their status if their relative, the primary visa holder, dies. Approval for these petitions is not guaranteed and is at the government’s discretion.

Dr. Amit Vashist, a Tennessee-based physician who used to be on a visa before he attained his current residency status, told Business Insider that he believes measures have to be taken so that healthcare workers aren’t worrying about visa issues as they fight the virus. Vashist is now senior vice president and the chief clinical officer of Ballad Health, a 22 hospital system.

“Lots of these doctors and healthcare workers are serving on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic and this disease is very deadly, particularly for healthcare workers who are exposed,” Vashist said. “What that does is, if God forbid something happens to this primary visa holder, the family, who is dependent on the primary visa holder, will have to leave the country or they face deportation.”

The coronavirus pandemic is a war with an invisible enemy, Vashist continued. “If you serve in the US military, on the frontlines of the war, your family is taken care if God forbid you get killed in the war.”

“They shouldn’t be worried about their visa or what would happen to their families if something happens to them,” he said.

This story has been updated to correct the description of data on physician visas provided by the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates.

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